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Embracing the Fear of Ignorance

There I sat, in a state-of-the-art conference room in the engineering department, listening to one scientific team after the next pitch a variety of promising biomedical breakthroughs to a small granting committee at a private California university.

As a speechwriter and pitch coach, I’d been invited to give feedback to this group of PhD scientists on how to improve their startup stories.

While I’d coached hundreds of entrepreneurs on the fine art of crafting and presenting a compelling pitch — ideas ranging from lighting for the film industry to energy grid storage — I was feeling rather uneasy about critiquing biomedical experts with advanced degrees. I mean, as a Liberal Arts major, what did know about science?

One of my strengths (and weaknesses) is I often agree (with enthusiasm) to take on projects I know little to nothing about, especially when I feel like a person or organization is in desperate need. So when the event director eagerly asked me to attend the competition she sweetened the deal by saying if I did well, consulting with the university would be in my future. Let’s just say, being competitive is my second downfall.

So I agreed, convincing myself I could figure it out. How hard could it be? All I would need to is pay attention, take notes, and highlight areas of each the stories that were in need of clarification. Straightforward, right? Sure, in theory.

However, around pitch number four, my head started to spin. Presenter after presenter marched out highly specific terms in lockstep, ranging from the vaguely familiar to the complete unknown. Words like glycolipid, hepatocellular, dermatophyte... and those are a few of the words I can remember and on a good day pronounce. Every sentence sounded like a page from a scientific journal. Try as I might to follow along, I was lost. My brain felt as if it was collapsing under the weight of a ton of jargon.

As each speaker prattled on about the scientific minutiae of their discovery, I started to panic. It was becoming painfully clear that no matter how good of a storyteller I thought I was, I had little to no idea what these scientific experts were trying to convey. Crap. Showing my ignorance was the very thing I feared most, and here it was staring me down like a cat eyeing its prey.

This time, clearly, my *can-do* spirit was not going to pay off. Worse yet, I could feel my core temperature rise and I could feel my neck and ears turning red at the very thought of revealing the bad news. How was I was going to tell the director (who was sitting next to me) that I was in over my head?

But halfway through, just as the sixth pitch was wrapping up, the director leaned over to me and whispered, “I want you to know I have a PhD in Chemistry and I have know idea what these people are talking about!”

In recognition (and relief) of the truth I leaned back in my chair, smiled and let out a silent laugh. I had wasted weeks leading up to the event, as well as half the evening, chastising myself asking, why didn’t I pay more attention in science class? Or even more frightening, could it be I was short-changed in the intellect department?

When I began this journey I was certain the reason I was hired was to help a group of budding scientific entrepreneurs to improve their startup stories. Early on, however, it became clear I was doing so much more than story coaching. Surprisingly, the majority of my coaching had to do with helping this group identify and manage fear — namely, my greatest fear, the fear of being wrong.

What I had not anticipated was that by bearing witness to these PhDs personal truths — through their willingness to open up with me, to not have all the answers and to share their personal struggles — I too would benefit. Like an invisible mirror, each one that had the courage to share their insecurities, reflected parts of myself I was unable see.

It's been eight years since that night, the night I was convinced I had nothing to offer a room full of smarty-pants PhDs. While on the surface we appeared to be disparate souls, it turned out we were actually kindred spirits.

It’s uncanny, but I believe our collective fear — the fear of looking ignorant — is exactly the magnetic force that united this storyteller with those scientists. This project allowed us to strengthen our inadequacies in relation to one another. By doing so we began to learn, foreign as it may feel, it's okay not have all the answers.

When we do finally muster up the courage to let go of the need to be all knowing and omnipotent, curiosity grows, ideas become adventures and life on the whole is a lot more fun.

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